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Right To Burn Or Right To Breathe? Utahns Outraged By Wood Burning Ban

Jennifer Pemberton

If it passes, it would be one of the strictest wood burning bans in the nation. State officials are accepting public comment on a proposed winter burn ban. UPR’s Jennifer Pemberton has this report on the overwhelming opposition expressed at Wednesday night’s public hearing in Logan.

In the simplest terms it’s the right to burn versus the right to breathe. At least that’s how those who oppose and support a seasonal ban on wood burning in Northern Utah are voicing it.

Governor Herbert tasked the state Air Quality Board with probing public opinion on the ban, which would prohibit use of all wood stoves in seven inversion-prone Utah counties from Nov. 1 to March 15 in an effort to limit winter air pollution.

At the public hearing Wednesday night in Logan the opposition was overwhelming. The sheriff’s office estimates there were 500 people trying to attend the hearing in the Cache County Courthouse with a capacity of 160.

Only two of the residents who offered oral public comments expressed support for the ban. One was a woman with lung cancer who was booed at the podium; the other was told to get rid of his car and ride a horse.

Reasons for opposing the ban ranged from the high cost of natural gas to helping reduce the risk of forest fires by removing firewood from public lands. People said they were fighting for their freedom to be self-reliant and to not be told what to do.

“I’m at stay at home mom," said one resident."I’m self sufficient, we have forest land that we have to manage and take the dead trees out of. And I’m not a criminal. I will not be made into a criminal.”

The group that has voiced the most organized opposition to the proposal is a coalition called Utahns for Responsible Burning, backed by the fireplace industry. They want the state to consider an exemption for low-emission EPA certified wood stoves. But the Department of Environmental Quality says that even though these “cleaner” burning stoves emit up to 33 percent less particulate matter, they still emit 160 times more than a natural gas furnace.

But the hearing in Logan didn’t focus much on solutions to reduce emissions. There was so much anger, so much emotion.

Credit Jennifer Pemberton
The Utah Air Quality Board listens to Cache County residents voice opposition to the proposed burn ban. The public comments will be compiled for the governor's review.

“Environmental conflicts have this unique aspect to them. In resource planning they call them wicked problems," says Maria Blevins, an Assistant Professor of Communications at Utah Valley University, who studies environmental conflict.

She says the reason people get so outraged at a proposal like this is that their core values are at stake. “This is not about wood burning,” said one Cache County resident at the hearing. “This is about rights.” Blevins would also argue it’s about family and warmth or being a good neighbor or even the memory of chopping firewood when you were a little kid. She says we can learn a lot about ourselves by asking where our outrage is coming from.

“When I hear I don’t want the government telling me what I can do or not do in my home, this is a deeper value of what is the role of government? What is the line between regulation and personal freedom?”

Some people feel like a ban on wood burning is a clear cut case of government overreach; some feel like it’s the least the government can do to put a dent in a major public health crisis. It seems like a very wide gap to fill. Maria Blevins says she thinks there are ways to look at this issue that are not so polarizing.

“I haven’t met many people who think 'you know, I just can’t wait to ruin my neighborhood or ruin my state or ruin this place where I live.' People are trying to build the best communities they can. That’s on both sides. That could be heating your home and keeping your family safe or that could be keeping your family safe by not wanting to inhale smoke. As we build communities, are our goals that different? Are your comments that you’re making being productive to that end?”

Written public comments on the proposed burn ban are being accepted by the Utah Division of Air Quality through February 9.

Tell Utah Public Radio how a wood burning ban would affect you and see what your community thinks here.